Monkey Island, South Carolina: Fact or Fiction

6:57 AM, May 21, 2010   |    comments
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Beaufort County, SC (WLTX) -- If the only thing that can match the ocean's power is the human imagination, then a 500 acre island, 30 miles east of Beaufort, has given imagination and the sea a perfect battle ground.

"You just gotta look through the clearings and sometimes you'll see them come through."

That is the advice captain-for-the-day BJ Parrish gave while we looked for one of the 3,500 rhesus monkeys to come wondering out on the beach.

We arrived in a 21-foot Carolina Skiff, floating about 25 yards off the Coast of Morgan Island, better known to the locals as Monkey Island.

"I've seen many, many," Parrish said pointing to the most popular places to spot the monkeys. "I've seen hundreds of them just laying out on the beach."

After about a 45 minute boat ride, leaving from a sea island just east of St. Helena Island, we came up to a densely wooded isle, it sits in the middle of the Morgan River and is only accessible by boat.

There are plenty of places for the monkeys to hide out, other than the beach, so you are never guaranteed to see one on a trip out there. And until you spot the first one, it is like they are all just a myth.

On our first day out there, we were not having much luck.
"I mean, they're here, we just have to wait them out," Parrish said.

And after a full afternoon looking, BJ and I headed back to the dock. All we had seen were a few gulls, a pelican and the dozens of warning signs telling us to stay off the island, and to leave the animals alone.

This island is not so mysterious for David Taub. Taub, the Mayor of Beaufort through the 1990s, and primatologist, was charged with the task of bringing the monkeys here back in 1979.

He managed the monkey facility for nearly two decades, and helped move the original colony of 1,500 monkeys from two islands off Puerto Rico.

"The monkeys were brought there through the FDA to test the efficacy of Polio vaccines," Taub said.

Taub has not worked at the island for 15 years. It has gone through several leases and owners, so he is not comfortable talking about what happens out there these days and neither are the agencies involved with the island now.

And Taub said it may be that secrecy leading some people to think the worst is happening out there.

"Since there is this sort of quiet relationship with the media it allows people to think all sorts of things," Taub said.

"People get these sinister ideas that monkeys are being tortured out there and I can tell you nothing could be further from the truth."

Day 2

Parrish and I headed back out in our skiff, this time joined with one of his co-workers, Nathan Crystal.

"He always sees monkey," Parrish said. "He's a good luck charm."

Luck was not on our side for the first couple hours. This time we left just a little while before sunset, hoping to catch the monkeys a little later in the day when it was not so hot.

However, as the sun went below the tree line, the monkeys showed up along the shore.

The Morgan Island property is actually owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The DNR owns many of the uninhabited Sea Islands along the coast. However, it is leased by a group called Charles River Laboratories out of Massachusetts, through funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

They all declined to let us on the island to explore, and they did not want to do any on camera interviews with News19. But the NIAID did send an email with background info.

Here is a copy of the email they sent to us:

Morgan Island is home to a breeding colony of approximately 3,500 free-ranging, Indian-origin rhesus monkeys. They were brought to the island in 1979 from Puerto Rico. They were originally used for polio vaccine studies and continue to be used by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, for research that helps develop life-saving preventions and treatments for other diseases affecting public health. The island is owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and leased by Charles River Laboratories, Inc., as part of a contract with NIAID. The colony is free-ranging, and the animals are provided food, water, and veterinary and other care in accordance with federal laws, regulations, and policies. No research is conducted on the island.

Back out on the river, we counted 10 monkeys, adults and babies, hanging out on a dead cypress tree. The only thing menacing about the island after circling it a few times were all the federal warning signs.

Caretakers do spend a good bit of time here. There is a dock down a back creek that actually pretty tough to get through unless you know what you are doing. That is where the staff goes to feed the monkeys and give them periodic veterinary care.

And according to the above email, no monkey testing or research actually happens on the island.

Taub said all the sinister thoughts about the island are best left to the science fiction writers.

"People's imaginations run wild and so everybody wants to think that something bad is happening out there and that's just not true."

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